An Open Letter to GM CEO Fritz Henderson on Day One

And that’s what worries me. I really wonder if General Motors can suddenly start to make stuff that’s well-designed, from both the engineering side, as well as the interior and exterior. Can an organization that has made so much truly ugly stuff suddenly start making great design?

Good morning Mr. Henderson —

 

Big day for you, no question. My best wishes go out to youon Day One running the new General Motors. Clean slate, pretty much, except forthose legacy issues that might hold you back. A culture of poor vision, poordesign, poor assembly, poor service. That’s a lot to change all at once, butyou’ll need to do it. At your press conference you said the new GM would bebringing to the market, among other things, great design. That really struckme. I wondered what your process would be for inspiring, creating andrecognizing great design. And how could a passion for great design beinculcated into the culture on a permanent basis?

 

Your passenger vehicle sales are now one-fifth of what theywere at their peak. You’ve lost sales to all those well-designed and well builtJapanese, European and even American cars. I can’t imagine that without greatdesign you will be able to get people like me out of their Audis and Hondas.

 

And that’s what worries me. I really wonder if GeneralMotors can suddenly start to make stuff that’s well-designed, from both theengineering side, as well as the interior and exterior. Can an organizationthat has made so much truly ugly stuff suddenly start making great design?

 

I went to your new website gmreinvention.com and perused theportraits of the top team, just to get some clues about the design sense there.I see mostly corporate-type guys, in ties and suits, and the one thing thatdoesn’t leap out is, “Wow — great design sense.” What leaps out is, “Olderwhite guys wearing suits to the office in Detroit, except for one woman and oneblack guy.” And while we’re all looking at this new website together for cluesabout the new GM, does it worry any of you that the portfolio of the woman,Susan E. Doherty, is described as: “North America VP, Buick-Pontiac-GMC.”Didn’t anyone tell the web designer that Pontiac was buried several weeks ago?

 

The first clue that I will be looking for that will indicatewhether you might be getting it will be how you go about changing the old GMlogo and branding. Will you step up to the world class level of yourcompetition, or will we have more lipstick-on-a-pig level efforts? The truthis, if your new logo and design efforts are synthesized for you by an outsideagency working with your marketing people, chances are the new look of GM willbe as disconnected from your aspirations as the current worn-out GM blue andwhite letters over a thick bar.

 

What should your process be to discover your new image? Asignificant number of top team people from a broad spectrum of leadership isgoing to need to get together and decide what the new GM really stands for. Ifyou don’t get this critical first step done right, the chances that anythingelse you do will be able to accurately express your aspirations for the new GMwill be zero. If you don’t know who you are and can’t articulate it, a wholebunch of people throughout the organization are going to be making up theirversion of what the new GM is, and it’s going to be way, way too much like theold GM. 

 

Once you have those retreats to figure out who you are, thenyou’ll be able to talk to designers about that new logo. You will be able totell them what you want to convey, instead of the other way around. And whenthey get it right, you’ll be the ones who know.

 

In the meantime, the whole world is watching. And we’llknow, too, when we see that new “GM” for the first time, what your future is.

 

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